James J.Y. Liu on Ye Xie and T.S. Eliot
A later critic, Ye Xie (1627-1703) wrote:
One who writes poetry must see where the ancients placed mandates on themselves, where they focused their eyes, where they set their goals, where they commanded their words, where they started with their hands—none of which may be treated casually. He must thoroughly remove his own original visage, as a physician treats a chronic disease: first completely purging the accumulated filth to put the pure emptiness in order, then gradually filling it with the learning, judgment, spirit, and reason of the ancients. After a long time, he must be able to remove the visage of the ancients; only then can the mind of a master craftsman emerge.
If Eliot were aware of such Chinese texts as these, he might well have concurred with Ye Xie on various points. Both of them recognized the importance of tradition as well as individual talent, and both believed that tradition required not only continuity but also change. Naturally, there are differences of opinion and emphasis between the two. Ye Xie, writing against the archaists who advocated imitation of ancient poets of particular periods, placed special emphasis on individual talent, courage, judgment, and strength, whereas Eliot, writing against the postromantic emphasis on originality, declared that in poetry there is no absolute originality that owes nothing to the past and that "the most individual parts of [a poet's] works may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most rigorously." Furthermore, Ye and Eliot conceived of poetic history in somewhat similar terms. Ye saw the history of Chinese poetry after the Song period as an endless series of alternations between flowering and withering, while Eliot saw the history of European poetry as an endless series of readjustments of the existing order. In both cases, individual talent is needed to bring about the reflorescence or readjustment, but the mainstream of poetry, which is impersonal, remains basically the same. Eliot's own poetry illustrates beautifully the interaction between tradition and individual talent. The lines from "Little Gidding" quoted above, as Helen Gardner pointed out, owe something to Langland for their rhythmic structure, but Eliot has avoided Langland's monotony and given the lines much greater freedom.
Some Chinese Perspectives on Poetry
These by no means reflect the entire contents of the book, and I have augmented this selection with a few more drawn from the same author's The Art of Chinese Poetry. In either case, up until relatively recently, "literature" in China meant poetry, as the the author makes clear. As a poet, I always find it interesting to know what other poets have said or thought about poetry, and most of these speakers quoted are/were poets, though possibly not all, especially with the later voices. Still, words of an astute critic are always welcome, especially when they have stood the test of time. Artists frequently prefer to do rather than theorize, which makes any kind of introspective pronouncement doubly rare (the Greek playwrights did not theorize, but Aristotle did, and even though --as Shakespeare proves— he got it wrong, his words of criticism are worth attending).
Each quotation is best read in isolation from the others, which is what made separate statuses an ideal format for their transmission; but it is hard to search things on Facebook, and lumping them all together here seems the best way to have them for easy reference—mine and others'. I have made no attempt to put these in any sequence other than that of my original encounter or serious rumination. Chronologically they cover a wide expanse. The voices sometimes seem to contradict one another; at other times may seem somewhat obscure. Still, when I recently posted something Robinson Jeffers had written about poetry, I was told by one FB friend it was debatable, by another "I disagree with most aspects of it," both of which I concurred with. But I don't think any of these time-tested insights will be easy to dispute. My interest, again, is with what they reveal about poetry. To anyone wanting a more comprehensive context, I would heartily urge them to Mr. Liu's books.
Taken together, these quotations represent the most concentrated trove of wisdom about poetry that I have ever seen. I don't know if it would have done me good to have encountered them earlier— skill in poetry has to be won by hard practice, though faulty theory can really derail one— but I am happy to find in some sense what I know corroborated and what I don't know clarified to an extent that I may hope of one day being able to figure it out.
The vital breath [ch'i] of earth reaches upwards, and that of heaven descends downwards. The forces of yin and yang rub against each other. When roused by thunder, stimulated by wind and rain, moved by the four seasons, and warmed by the sun and moon, then all kinds of changes arise. That is why music is the harmony of heaven and earth.
--The Book of Rites
The sage moves men's hearts and then the world is at peace. In moving men's hearts, there is nothing that precedes emotion, nothing that does not begin with words, nothing that does not accord with music, and nothing that is deeper than meaning. What we call poetry has emotion as its root, words as its sprouts, music as its flowers, and meaning as its fruit.
--Po Chu-yi (772-846)
The music of a well-governed world is peaceful and happy, its government being harmonious; the music of a disorderly world is plaintive and angry, its government being perverse; the music of a vanquished country is sad and nostalgic, its people being distressed.
--The Book of Rites
People nowadays force themselves to write poetry out of desire for the reputation of being a poet; not only do their poems depart from their personal natures [hsing-ch'ing], but they lack the working of sensibility [ling-chi].
--Yuan Mei (1716-1798)
Poetry involves a separate kind of talent, which is not concerned with books; it involves a separate kind of meaning [ch'u], which is not concerned with principles [or reason, li]. Yet unless one reads widely and investigates principles thoroughly, one will not be able to reach the ultimate. What is called 'not touching the path of reason [li] nor falling into the trammel of words' is the best. Poetry is what sings of one's emotion and nature. The poets of the High T'ang [8th century] relied only on inspired feelings [hsing-ch'u], like the antelope that hangs by its horns, leaving no traces to be found. Therefore, the miraculousness of their poetry lies in its transparent luminosity, which cannot be pieced together; it is like sound in the air, color in appearances, the moon in water, or an image in the mirror; it has limited words but unlimited meaning. As for recent gentlemen, they come up with strange interpretations and understandings [of poetry]; and so they take [mere] words as poetry. Not that their poetry is unskillful, but it is after all not the poetry of the ancients, because it lacks 'the music that one man sings and three men echo.' Moreover, in their works they must use many allusions, but pay no attention to inspired moods [hsing-chih]; every word they use must have a source, every rhyme they employ must have a precedent. When you read them over and over again from beginning to end, you don't know what they are aiming at. The worst of them even scream and growl, which is much against the principle of magnanimity. They are practically taking abusive language as poetry. When poetry has reached such a state, it can be called a disaster.
--Yen Yu (fl. 1180-1235)
'To discard the raft and climb ashore' is what experts in Ch'an [Zen] consider to be the 'awakened state' [wu-ching] and what experts in poetry consider to be the 'transformed state' [hua-ching]. Poetry and Ch'an [Zen] are the same and there is no difference between them.
--Wang Yu-yang (1634-1711)
The writing of poetry is based on ch'ing [emotion/inner experience] and ching [scene/external world]: neither by itself can complete [poetry]; neither is in conflict with the other. Whenever we climb high and let our thoughts roam, we communicate with the ancients in spirit [shen]; [our thoughts] reach everywhere, far and near, and we feel sorrow or happiness accordingly. These things give rise to one another in a chance manner, thereby causing forms to appear where there was no trace of anything, and echoes to be evoked where there was no sound. Now, the ch'ing [emotion/inner experience] may be different while the ching [scene/external world] is the same, and describing them may be difficult or easy. In poetry, there are two essentials, and nothing is more important than these: what is observed without is the same, but the feelings aroused within may be different. One should exert oneself to make what is within and what is without like one thing, and what goes out of one's mind no different from what comes into it. Ching [scene/external world] is the matchmaker of poetry, and ch'ing [emotion/inner experience] is its embryo. When these fuse to become poetry, one can then sum up ten thousand forms with few words, and one's poetry will have a primordial vital force [yuan-ch'i] which is an indivisible whole and which will overflow without limits.
--Hsieh Chen (1495-1575)
The ultimate attainment of poetry lies in one thing: entering the spirit [ju-shen]. If poetry enters the spirit, it has reached perfection, the limit, and nothing can be added to it.
--Yen Yu (1180-1235)
In general, the way [tao] of Ch'an [Zen] lies in miraculous awakening [miao-wu] alone, and so does the way of poetry. Moreover, Meng Hsiang-yang [Meng Hao-jan] was far inferior to Han T'ui-chih [Han Yu] in learning, and the reason that his poetry nevertheless surpassed the latter's was nothing but his complete reliance on miraculous awakening. Only through awakening can one 'ply one's proper trade' and 'show one's true colors.'
The ancients, in their poetry, only took what was transcendental and miraculous in their inspired encounters [with nature], unlike latter-day people whose counting of chapters and verses is merely a mileage-recording drum.
As for your remarks that in poetry one should value moderation and should not speak without restraint, and that poetry must be concerned with human relationships and everyday uses, these words have the grand airs of loose Court robes: in my mouth I dare not say you are wrong, but in my heart I dare not say you are right.
--Yuan Mei, in a letter to Shen Te-ch'ien
The essentials of writing poetry do not go beyond two principles: [the first consists of] formal style [or form and style, t'i-ko] and musical tone [or sound and tone, sheng-tiao]; [the second of] inspired imagery [hsing-hsiang] and personal airs or spirit [feng-shen]. With regard to formal style, there are rules that one can follow; but with regard to inspired imagery and personal airs or spirit, there are no ways that one can adhere to. Hence, a writer need only seek to make his form correct and his style lofty, his sound powerful and his tone flowing; after he has accumulated practice for a long time, all his careful attentions will melt away and all outward traces will dissolve. Then his inspired imagery and personal airs or spirit will naturally become transcendent. To draw an analogy with the flower in the mirror and the moon reflected in water: formal style and musical tone are the water and the mirror; inspired imagery and personal airs or spirit are [the reflections of] the moon and the flower. The water must be limpid and the mirror bright before the flower and the moon can appear clearly. How can one seek to see these two in a dimmed mirror or a murky flow? Therefore, method is what one should attend to first, and awakening cannot be forced.
--Hu Ying-lin (1551-1602)
Poetry [shih] means ‘to keep’ [ch’ih]. in other words, it is what keeps one’s nature and emotion [in balance?]. The Three Hundred Poems can be summed up in one phrase, ‘No evil thoughts’. If one keeps this as a motto, it will have its proper effect.
--Liu Hsieh (ca. 465-522)
Formerly, poets who wrote songs in The Book of Poetry created literature for the sake of emotion, but the literati who composed ‘expositions’ [fu] and ‘odes’ [sung] manufactured emotion for the sake of literature. How so? The Book of Poetry was inspired by the dictates of the heart and long pent-up indignation; it expressed the emotions and nature of the poets, in order to satirize their rulers. This is what I call ‘creating literature for the sake of emotion’. On the other hand, the followers of the various schools, who bore no great sorrow in their heart, displayed their talents and adorned their writings with extravagance, in order to acquire reputation and fish for compliments. This is what I call ‘manufacturing emotion for the sake of literature’. Therefore, what is written for the sake of literature is over-decorative and extravagant.
Poetry is nothing extraordinary; it is only the words which rise from the heart and lie at the tip of the tongue, and which everyone cannot help longing to utter. The scholars, making use of the ten thousand volumes they have studied thoroughly in their lifetime, cut such words into forms and embellish them with elegance. That poetry possesses forms and elegance is a thing the scholars boast about as due to the skill of which they alone are capable. As for its original nature, it is simply the words that, rising from everyone’s heart and lying at the tip of his tongue, force themselves to be uttered, and not a thing the scholars can boast about as due to their special skill.
--Chin Sheng-t’an (?-1661)
Poetry is what expresses one’s nature and emotion. It is enough to look no further than one’s self [for the material for poetry]. If its words move the heart, its colors catch the eye, its taste pleases the mouth, and its sound delights the ear, then it is good poetry.
--Yuan Mei (1716-1797)
In writing poetry, one must express what is felt sincerely in the heart and what is felt in common with others in the heart. It is because poetry expresses what is felt sincerely in the heart that tears can fall in response to one’s brush-strokes; and it is because it expresses what is felt in common with others in the heart that it can make one’s readers shed tears in response to one’s utterance.
Words must have methods and rules before they can fit and harmonize with musical laws, just as circles and squares must fit with compasses and rulers. The ancients used rules, which were not invented by them but really created by Nature. Now, when we imitate the ancients, we are not really imitating them but really imitating the natural law of things.
--Li Meng-yang (1472-1528)
The fundamental principles of poetic methods do not originate with oneself; they are like rivers flowing into the sea, and one must trace their sources back to the ancients. As for the infinitely varied applications of poetic methods, from such major considerations as the structural principles down to such details as the grammatical nature of a word, the tone of a syllable, and the points of continuation, transition, and development--all these one must learn from the ancients. Only so can one realize that everything is done according to rules and in consonance with the laws of music and that one cannot do as one likes to the slightest degree.
--Weng Fang-kang (1733-1818)
More Chinese Thoughts on Poetry
As for the encounter with inspiration
The law governing its flow or obstruction--
When it comes, it cannot be checked;
When it goes, it cannot be stopped.
Sometimes it hides itself like light vanishing;
Sometimes it stirs like sound arising.
When the natural trigger is fast and sharp,
What confusion will not be put in order?
Gusts of thought issue forth from the breast,
Fountains of words flow from the lips and teeth:
Luxuriant profusion and powerful splendor
Are captured by the writing brush and white silk.
Words, brilliantly shining, inundate the eye;
Music, richly sounding, fills the ear.
But when the six emotions run sluggish,
When the will strives forward but the spirit delays,
Then [the mind] is unfeeling like a withered tree
And empty like a dried-up stream;
Though one may concentrate one's soul to search the mysteries,
And lift up one's spirit to seek by oneself,
Order, lying in the dark, becomes even more submerged;
Thoughts, obstinately recalcitrant, refuse to be drawn out.
Therefore, sometimes one may exhaust one's feelings but achieve regrettable results;
At other times one may follow one's ideas freely yet commit few faults.
Even though this matter rests with myself,
It is not within my power to control it.
Thus, often I stroke my empty bosom and sigh,
For I have not understood the causes of its ebb and flow.
—Lu Ji (261-303)
At the moment when one grasps the writing brush, one's vital spirit us doubly strong before phrases are formed; by the time the piece is completed, half of what one's mind originally conceived has been frustrated. Why so? Ideas turn in the void and can easily be extraordinary, but words bear witness to reality and can achieve artistry only with difficulty. Hence, ideas derive from [intuitive] thought, and words derive from ideas. If they correspond closely, there will be no discrepancy; if they are apart, one will miss by a thousand li.
—Liu Xie (ca. 465-ca. 522)
Those rules of old discovered, not devised,
Are nature still, but nature methodized.
—Alexander Pope (1688-1744)
To obtain a line is like obtaining immortality;
To be enlightened about writing is like being enlightened in Ch'an [Zen].
—Li Zhiyi (ca. 1040-ca. 1105)
Now, what is poetry all about? [You may say,] "Esteem its words; that is all." But I say, "One who is good at poetry gets rid of words." "If so, then, esteem its meaning; that is all." I say, "One who is good at poetry gets rid of the meaning." "If so, then, having got rid of the words and the meaning, where would poetry exist?" "I say, "Having got rid of the words and the meaning, then poetry has somewhere to exist." "If so, then, where does poetry really exist?" I say, "Have you ever tasted candy and tea? Who is not fond of candy? At first it is sweet, but in the end it turns sour. As for tea, people complain of its bitterness, but before its bitterness is over, one is overcome by sweetness. Poetry is also like this; that is all."
—Yang Wanli (1127-1206)
A poem depends entirely on the last line; this is like stopping a galloping horse. When both the meaning and the words come to an end, it is like "overlooking the water to see off someone going home": when the meaning comes to an end but the words do not, it is like "spiraling with a whirlwind"; when the words come to an end but the meaning does not, it is like the returning boat on the Shan stream; when both the words and the meaning have no ending, it is like [meeting] Wenbo Xuezi. What I call "both the words and the meaning coming to an end" refers to cutting off words that might have come later in the middle of their rapid current; it does not mean that one's words as such are exhausted or that one's ideas are really depleted. What I call "the meaning coming to an end but the words not ending" refers to the meaning ending when it should not yet end, so that words need not come to an end; it does not refer to padding with long-winded words. As for "the words coming to and end but the meaning not ending," this does not mean leaving some meaning out, for the meaning is already somewhat discernible in the words. "Both the words and the meaning having no ending" refers to deeply exhausting the meaning in nonending.
—Jiang Kui (ca. 1155-1221
When I learned to write poetry in my early years, I took all the works of the ancients and the moderns and read them, and felt as if I had obtained release within. I then realized that what is Heaven-given in one's nature and emotions and what is Heaven-given in sound and music issue forth in words and cannot be casually and easily described. However, one also needs to follow previous writers in order to widen one's knowledge, and to travel in all directions in order to be familiar with the ways of the world. One must make events, objects, feelings, and scenes blend, melt, and become an integral whole, for only then can one peek into the inner chamber of a master of poetry. No doubt here is something of which the changes seem to have a limit but are inexhaustible, the spirit seems to depart but is continuous, and the meaning seems to have been reached and the words seem to have been exhausted but the music lingers on.
—Zhang Zhu (1285-1364)
If, in writing poetry, you insist it be this poem,
Then certainly you are not one who understands poetry.
—Su Shi (1037-1101)
Now, as for gusto, it is what people have received from Heaven, and cannot be forcibly acquired. Therefore, it is possible to have wide learning but difficult to have ideas; possible to have ideas but difficult to speak; possible to speak but difficult to have flavor; possible to have flavor but difficult to have music; possible to have music but difficult to have airs. When all five are beautiful, we name them [collectively] "gusto." Even the author himself does not know how it comes to be so.
—Zhao Nanxing (1550-1627)
In my old age I have entered the Gate of Emptiness [Buddhism], and no longer touch musical sounds [poetry], but I have become rather enlightened about the principle of poetry. I consider the way of poetry to be thus: there are those who are capable without studying, and those who are incapable despite studying; there is that which one can study and become capable of by studying, and there is that which one can study but cannot become capable of; there are those who become even more capable by studying, and those who, the more they may study, become the more incapable; there is Heaven-given artistry, and there is human effort. If one knows wherefore this is so, then one may come close to poetry and study [how to write] it.
—Wu Weiye (1609-1671)
James J.Y. Liu's Concept of Poetry
The world re-created by the reader is not to be mistaken as the author’s Lebenswelt, since the work no longer refers ostensively to the author’s actual situation or environment but nonostensively to all similar situations that may possibly exist. Even if a work contains references to actual persons, events, places, dates, and so forth (and Chinese poems are particularly replete with such seemingly ostensive references), it cannot revive the actual situation that provided the occasion for the creation of the work. What it can do is to let us experience an imaginary world that resembles the original situation. Poetry is not a time machine that can bring the past back to life; it is, rather, a magic carpet that can transport us into a world that exists outside time. By transcending the author’s actual situation at the time of writing, poetry escapes from time into timelessness.
This is not to say that poetry deals only with the universal, but that it reveals the universal through the particular, or, to adopt the distinction made by E.D. Hirsch, Jr., between “meaning” and “significance,” that poetry transcends its local meaning and acquires universal significance.
. . .
I do not mean that we enjoy the words purely for the beauty of their sound apart from their meaning; on the contrary, our satisfaction is partly due to the fact that the sound reinforces the meaning. For instance, the long vowels and diphthongs [in the line “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day] compel us to slow down, as if we (identifying with the speaker while we read) were trying to slow down the passing of time and make this short “summer’s day” last a little longer. What I have just said is, of course, also true of Chinese poetry, as well as music and perhaps even some kinds of visual arts. The satisfaction we get from looking at Chinese calligraphy and some Chinese paintings is due primarily, I think, not to spatial relations among the lines and brushstrokes but to the temporal experience of repeating in our mind the movement of the artist’s brush. In short, I believe that aesthetic experience is a kind of creative experience by proxy: to read a love poem is not a substitute for being in love but an approximate substitute for writing a love poem, just as looking at a painting of apples is not a substitute for eating or even looking at apples but an approximate substitute for painting them.
. . .
The concept of poetry described above implies that a poem, as a literary work of art, is both referential and self-referential, both signifier (signifiant) and signified (signifié), both centrifugal and centripetal (in Northrop Frye’s sense). In other words, the linguistic structure of a poem both transcends itself and draws attention to itself. In transcending itself, it yields a created world, which is an extension of reality; in drawing attention to itself, it satisfies the creative impulse of both author and reader. This concept of poetry can be applied, with modifications, to fiction and drama, but in the following pages we shall confine our discussions to what is generally considered “poetry.”